I have a friend who’s coming up for tenure at a major research university this summer. He calls it his dream job. The good news is, it doesn’t look like he will have any trouble getting tenure. Just a few months ago, his wife received tenure at a small liberal arts school. Her dream job. The only trouble is, the two schools are separated by, oh, 500 miles or so. Most weeks during the academic year my friend flies up for a three-day weekend to be with them (yes, them – oh, did I forget to mention they have a 2 year old daughter?)
While their complex arrangement is extreme, the academic world is filled with this kind of story. It’s so common, in fact, that it took my non-academic friends exclaiming about this situation before my brain really kicked in on the sacrifice this entails.
Which makes me glad of my simple lifestyle. I love being with my children during this time of my life. I can’t imagine finding my intellectual fulfillment in any more complicated means than working it around my family, at least for now. With the world getting smaller, and warmer, and more crowded, and more polluted, I feel more and more of a responsibility to lead a simpler life myself, and to role-model a simpler life for the next generation.
Responsible living takes time and effort. It’s not just a matter of changing all your light bulbs to cfls. It means inconvenience that needs to be thought out and planned for, because in fact, living simply isn’t all that simple. And it’s something that is often conveniently forgotten, because traditional career trajectories in academia are at odds with simple lives. Some examples: in order to maximize the work day, the extra half hour saved by driving kids to the daycare instead of walking can be vital. It may be time consumptive to donate an old washing machine – which still works fine – to charity, so the simple solution works much better: stick in on the curb for garbage pick up. And there’s just no time budgeted to walk to the library, appreciate the seasons and outdoors, or connect with neighbors. But it doesn’t need to be this way. In fact, it seems to me that with so many people in the world, it is crucial to add earth-stewardship responsibilities into the old fashioned (and, if you ask me, rather selfish) idea of “having it all”. I.e. now it’s a matter of balancing intellectual work, family time, and responsible living. This balancing act applies to everyone. Not just those with kids.
How can we simplify academic lives? In an ideal world, we might provide more options for academics to work as collaborative groups. Collaboration has become increasingly important in science. It could be used to make opportunities available for people to do exciting, meaningful, respected, and rewarded work as part of a team, and at the same time, allow for different sized contributions. It is a way to spread out the work, bring in many minds, and allow for diverse types of careers, with different degrees of flexibility and time requirements and measures of success not necessarily dependent on the number of first-name publications an individual produces.
Obviously we’re going to have to look many places for many solutions. But academia can and should be actively developed to emphasize career types that can accommodate both simpler living and families. This is an issue for everyone to solve.